The Fourth of July in America
The Fourth of July
“We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal,” is one of the stirring phrases from our Declaration of Independence, issued in Philadelphia by the Continental Congress on July 4th, 1776.
The annual commemoration, of this bold declaration, occurs every July Fourth to the accompaniment of grand displays of fireworks, family picnics and other celebrations. Few of us ever think back to what led to the signing of this document and how dangerous it was for those intrepid signers, whose names appear so boldly below the text.
Despite the surface level bravado, each signer pledged his life in testament to what lay within. They pledged all of their earthly possessions in support of the cause. It wasn’t just an academic exercise. Had the British put down the American revolt, each of these men would have been tried for treason and hung from the neck until dead.
We were raised on the quaint stories of George Washington crossing the Delaware River and raiding Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Day. And we empathized with the calamities that the Continental Congress faced in raising and training an army of rag tag farmers and woodsmen. These hardy colonists were to face the largest and best-equipped standing Army and Navy in the Western world.
One has to wonder at the temerity of these aristocrats, for each indeed was bred from well-heeled families. Almost all of them were British Citizens, born to the cloth as it were. What made them act in a manner most of us would have adjudged to be rash and risky. Fully one third of their countrymen were active supporters of the Hanoverian Kings then reigning in Britain. Another third of the colonists were indifferent or just plain didn’t want the personal and very real trouble that a revolt could bring to one picking the losing side. I never really thought about this aspect of the struggle until we came upon settlements in Ottawa, Canada and Nova Scotia that were founded and peopled by fleeing Americans who had remained loyal to the crown.
The setting of the five-year fight was waged amidst the ongoing struggles that the British had with France and Spain, ranging back and forth across Europe and the Atlantic. Like W.W.II, there were conflicts everywhere with winners and losers emerging yearly.
After five years of our own struggle with the British, the end was a close run thing. The French Army and navy helped us effect the conclusion. Lord Cornwallis and 7,000 British Army troops were surrounded and forced into a coastal fortification at Yorktown, in Southern Virginia by French and American forces. Fourteen British ships, carrying men and supplies to reinforce them, had been engaged and run off by 17 French ships of the line, just off nearby Cape Henry. Had Admiral De Grasse and the French ships not precluded the English ships from reinforcing Cornwallis, the American Revolution may well have been decided in favor of the British. All of those intrepid signers of the Declaration would have been hunted down and hanged. History hung by a thread for us in those few days. Fickle fate came down in favor of the Americans. God Bless the French for their help.
Because of the courage and fortitude of these many British/American immigrants, a new nation was born, one conceived in the flame of Liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men were created equal. Some say the last battles of this revolution were not fought until eighty years later in the American Civil War.
The revolutionary replay between the British and Americans occurred thirty some years later during the War of 1812. The burning of Washington and the stirring words of our national anthem written while its author Francis Scott Key watched FT. McHenry in Baltimore, while it was under bombardment, also gave us the fiery imagery of the pyrotechnics we see bursting across our skies every Fourth of July
Enjoy well the company of families and the bucolic pleasures that we all treasure so much this Fourth. But, remember always those intrepid souls who put their lives and fortunes on the line to give us birth as a nation.
Happy Fourth of July to everyone.
Joseph Xavier Martin